MIAMI - During his first visit to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden on Tuesday appealed directly to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican voters living in the state by releasing a long-awaited plan to help their bankrupt and storm-battered island rebuild and shed its crippling debt.
Biden - who acknowledged Monday that he needs to "work like the devil" to win over more of Florida's Hispanic voters - stopped short of endorsing Puerto Rican statehood, among the highest profile political issues hanging over the U.S. territory. He restated a plan to work with representatives of the different positions on the island's political status to "engage in a fair and binding process to determine their own status."
But he promised to cut red tape bogging down federal assistance, pledged to expand healthcare on the island, and swore to end policies of the administration of President Donald Trump and even former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.
"Today's a historical day for Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community," Javier Cuebas, coalitions director for Biden's Florida campaign, told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. "No president or presidential candidate has ever provided a plan as comprehensive as the one we have in front of us."
Biden, whose last visit to Florida came in September 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, stopped in Tampa early in the afternoon to meet with veterans and then planned to travel to Kissimmee near Orlando to talk with Puerto Rican voters.
His new Puerto Rico plan on how to help the weary island of about 3 million U.S. citizens - not including the more than 1 million who live in Florida - comes amid indications that the race for president is tightening in the nation's most populous swing state. Recent polls have also shown Biden lagging among Hispanic voters in the state, a key Democratic constituency that makes up 17% of Florida's registered voters. Puerto Ricans number more than 1 million in Florida, and comprise about one-third of Florida's Hispanic voters.
As Biden flew into Tampa Tuesday, Florida's Cuban-American Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez dismissed his efforts to court Hispanic voters as too little, too late. She said continuous visits by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have showed Hispanic voters that Trump cares about them outside of campaign season.
"The Biden campaign has just now begun to engage," said Nunez, co-chair of the Latinos for Trump coalition. "I recall, a year ago, Vice President Mike Pence was in Florida kicking off the Latinos for Trump coalition."
An Equis Research survey of more than 1,000 Latinos in Florida completed Aug. 25 found Biden up 53% to Trump's 37% in the state. That's well ahead of Trump but also behind Hillary Clinton's 2016 support. Among Puerto Ricans, the Equis Research poll found Biden up 62% to 28% over Trump.
Puerto Ricans, especially, are crucial to Biden's chances of victory in Florida, now home to the largest mainland community of Boricuas. They have emerged as a counter-balance to conservative-minded Cuban Americans in the state, and have expressed widespread discontent with Trump, who has denied the death toll of 2017's Hurricane Maria on the island and pulled funds from the U.S. territory to help build his border wall.